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Stéphane Dion says he ‘may have’ been Phoenixed during transition to foreign service

By Chelsea Nash      

The former foreign minister was subject to intense questioning from opposition MPs at committee Tuesday.

Stéphane Dion, Canada's ambassador-designate to Germany and special envoy to the EU and Europe, took questions from his former colleagues at the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday morning. He is pictured flanked by the foreign ministry's assistant deputy minister for Europe, Alexandra Bugailiskis, left, and EU Ambassador to Canada Marie-Anne Coninsx at a March 27 EU event in Ottawa. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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It looks like even former foreign ministers aren’t immune to payroll difficulties with the government’s new Phoenix pay system.

Ambassador-designate Stéphane Dion said he “may have” encountered pay difficulties as a result of complications with the government pay system Phoenix.

Answering questions from reporters Tuesday, Mr. Dion said “I’m now a civil servant. I share concerns that so many of my colleagues have.”

“The difficulty I had [is] nothing if compared” with someone with kids who has to pay bills every week, he said, implying that he did have some problems.

Pressed further on whether or not he did have problems getting paid recently, he said “it may have happened,” with a laugh.

Last month, Mr. Dion received an order-in-council appointing him as “special adviser” while he waited to receive the official agrément, or approval, from Germany and the European Union.

Thousands of public servants have been either underpaid or overpaid since the government implemented the Phoenix pay system in early 2016. One of the main issues Phoenix has had has been processing pay when employees switch positions, as would have been the case with Mr. Dion in going from MP pay to a “special adviser” under Global Affairs Canada.

Those triaging the pay issues have also not prioritized correcting position-change pay issues, instead focusing on employees going without pay or those who are at risk of not getting paid, such as those on maternity leave, for example.

Agrément is essentially the consent given by a hosting country to a new envoy that another country has appointed. It is typically given before the appointment is announced publicly.

However, to the dismay of some former Canadian ambassadors, Mr. Dion’s appointment was announced before agrément was given from either the European Union or Germany.

Mr. Dion had just appeared before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, answering questions about his impending departure for Europe as a Canadian ambassador, after being replaced as foreign minister by Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.). The committee later heard from Canada’s ambassador to China, former immigration minister John McCallum.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) issued a press release Monday evening announcing the appointment of Mr. Dion as Canada’s ambassador to Germany, and the prime minister’s “special envoy to the EU and Europe.”

The title of “special envoy” was a divergence from the initial appointment announcement made at the end of January, which proposed Mr. Dion as “Canada’s ambassador to the European Union and Germany.”

Mr. Dion maintained that while his title had changed over the past few months, the essence of his role had not. He said he will be acting as a “senior diplomat to Europe providing overarching guidance to Europe.”

Mr. Dion was pressed on how he would fulfil that role, given that the EU and geographical Europe are two different things, by Conservative MP Tom Kmiec (Calgary Shepard, Alta.)

“What I’m doing covers far more than the EU,” Mr. Dion said. He talked about the Arctic, addressing environmental challenges, and mentioned he will also be collaborating with Switzerland and Norway, for instance, neither of which are EU member states.

Mr. Dion said the title change was the result of “internal discussions” both domestically and with the EU, and “because it expressed better what the prime minister wanted to do.”

One of his priorities will be ensuring the success of CETA “not just as a signed agreement.” Another aspect of his role will be holding a yearly meeting with all of Canada’s ambassadors to Europe, and reporting back to cabinet afterwards.

Hardball questions from opposition MPs about Dion’s dual appointment

Conservative MP and foreign affairs critic Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) did not hold back when asking Mr. Dion questions at the committee.

He characterized the change in title as a “rejection” of Mr. Dion by the EU, and asked if “this bizarre dual appointment” was a condition of Mr. Dion after being ousted from cabinet.

Mr. Dion said he did not “ask anything” of the prime minister, nor did he negotiate.

NDP MP Hélène Laverdière (Laurier-Sainte-Marie, Que.), her party’s foreign affairs critic, said she had heard many concerns from those within the foreign ministry about the feasibility of Mr. Dion taking on so many different roles. 

“Ambassador to Germany is a full-time job,” she said in French. “Myself, a diplomatic veteran, [I] am troubled by this dual appointment,” she said, particularly given a time when Europe is dealing with “enormous challenges.” Ms. Laverdière was a Canadian diplomat before being elected as an MP. 

Mr. Kmiec asked Mr. Dion if he thought his credibility with the EU would be undermined at all given they did not accept his appointment as ambassador, to which Mr. Dion responded it would not. 

It is unclear whether Mr. Dion was officially put forward as ambassador to the EU at all. Canada’s current ambassador to the EU, Dan Costello, is staying on in that role.

A spokesperson for the EU Delegation to Canada said in an email that “We look forward to working with Mr. Dion in his capacity of special envoy to the EU and Europe,” and quoted a letter from EU Council President Donald Tusk and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Mr. Trudeau as saying, “We believe special envoy Dion can help champion our shared values of freedom, human rights, and democracy, as well as our shared dedication to the market economy, so as to drive forward our common interests in a period of unprecedented challenges.”

Mr. Kmiec also asked why the foreign minister couldn’t be responsible for providing overarching Canadian representation to all of Europe. Mr. Dion said Ms. Freeland “will be well involved in all of this.”

cnash@hilltimes.com

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